First-born Sons And Feminine Plural Endings

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published July 21, 2006, issue of July 21, 2006.
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Forward reader Leon Chameides has been, so he writes, “troubled since Passover,” which is indeed a long time to be troubled. What is bothering him is “the grammatical construction of the tenth plague.” Why, Mr. Chameides wishes to know, is this plague known in Jewish tradition as makat bekhorot, “the plague of the first-born sons [of Egypt],” with the Hebrew word for “first-born son,” bekhor, taking the feminine plural ending of -ot? Shouldn’t it, asks Mr. Chameides, be makat bekhorim, with the masculine plural ending of -im? After all, he writes, the traditional “fast of the first-born son” performed in some Jewish communities on Passover eve is indeed known as ta’anit bekhorim. Where’s the consistency?

The answer is that one mustn’t look for too much consistency in Hebrew plurals. They’re notoriously irregular, especially when it comes to the gender of their endings — so much so that some linguists have argued that these endings were originally, in the prehistory of the language, not gender-based at all. Let’s look at some examples.

The fact that bekhor can take, in classical Hebrew, both a masculine and a feminine plural ending (in modern Hebrew it takes only the masculine) is the least of it. Classical Hebrew has quite a few such words, such as or, “light,” whose plural can be either orim or orot (the latter is the sole form today), or gvul, “border,” which is pluralized as both gvulim and gvulot (with gvulot now used exclusively). This is perhaps only to be expected in a language that was not spoken for two thousand years, so that when variant forms developed they were all preserved, there being no speech community — as there is in Israel today — to decide among them.

More puzzling is the question of why, in a much larger number of Hebrew words that have only one possible plural form, this form is — like bekhorot in makat bekhorot — the “wrong” gender. Why is the plural of a masculine noun like kisei, a chair, always kis’ot, and of mazleg, a fork, always mazlegot? (Such nouns are grammatically masculine despite their “feminine” plural because in both the singular and the plural they must be accompanied by masculine adjectives and masculine verbs.) And why is the plural of a feminine noun like betsah, an egg, always betsim, or of gah.elet, a burning coal, always geh.alim? This is the kind of thing that can drive beginning students of Hebrew to distraction.

Of course, it is possible to argue that since there is nothing inherently feminine or masculine about chairs, forks, eggs, coals or most other objects or abstract concepts, their masculinity or femininity is an entirely arbitrary construction, not only in Hebrew, but in all languages having gendered nouns. Whatever grammatical inconsistencies accompany such nouns, therefore, however annoying, do not really pose a logical problem. They are simply givens of a language that must be accepted.

Perhaps so. But unfortunately, Hebrew also has nouns whose femininity or masculinity is inherent in their nature, yet which still take the “wrong” plural ending. You would think, for instance, that the plural of av, “father,” would be avim, but it happens to be avot. And while it seems equally obvious that the plural of ishah, “woman,” should be ishot, or rather, nashot, since it has an irregular first syllable, it is in fact nashim. Similarly, the plural of ez, a she-goat, is izim, and the plural of aryeh, a male lion, is arayot.

All this confusion has led to the theory, as I’ve said, that in the original proto-Semitic language from which Hebrew, like Arabic, Aramaic, Amharic and other Semitic tongues, descends, the “masculine” and “feminine” plural suffixes had nothing at all to do with the masculinity or femininity of the nouns they were suffixed to. In many Semitic languages, indeed, suffixing is by no means the most common way of creating plurals; so-called “broken plurals,” which involve changes in the internal structure of the word, are more the rule, especially with those basic words that tend to be the oldest in any language. Thus, in Arabic, for example, we have beyt, “house,” buyut, houses; kalb, “dog,” kilab, “dogs”; bab, “gate,” abwab, “gates,” and so on. None of these “broken plurals” have gender-related forms, and although many Arabic words are also pluralized by the “masculine” and “feminine” suffixes -in and -at, which correspond to Hebrew -im and -ot, this is only one of many pluralizing strategies. And yet interestingly, all new words coined in Arabic are pluralized by -in and –at only.

What this suggests is that early Hebrew too, of which we have no record, may have had many ways of forming plurals, none of them gender-related, of which -im and -ot were not the most frequent — and that slowly, over a long period of time, -im and -ot gradually replaced the more irregular forms, as they show some sign of doing in Arabic today. And as they did, one may continue to speculate, -im slowly became associated with masculine nouns and -ot with feminine ones, so that the notion of “masculine” and “feminine” plural endings in Hebrew came into being. Yet because this process remained incomplete and never encompassed all Hebrew nouns, many exceptions to it remain to this day. Bekhorot is just one of them. I hope this sets Mr. Chameides’s troubled mind to rest.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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